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THE RUINED HOUSE (Harper 2017 in the USA) is the first novel by Jerusalem-born Ruby Namdar, a work that marks the arrival of an important writer in Jewish-American literature. The book was first published in Israel and earned the Sapir Prize, that country’s the country’s highest literary award.
The imaginative tale portrays the struggle between spiritual and earthly life. Andrew Cohen, a professor at NYU, leads a meticulously-arranged life and is about to receive the most prestigious promotion of his career. He is on excellent terms with his ex-wife Linda and his two daughters adore him. His girlfriend, Ann Lee, a former student half his age, offers lively companionship.
But his happy world begins to mysteriously unravel when strange and inexplicable visions of an ancient religious ritual consume his thoughts and upend his seemingly serene existence.
Interspersed throughout the novel are pages that resemble the layout of ancient Talmudic text, unprecedented in American literature. For the gentile reader unfamiliar with Judaic religious laws and scriptures, it may take extra time and effort to see that the novel has much to reveal about faith in modern times.
The Talmud is, in simple terms, the collection of Jewish law and tradition consisting of the Mishnah and the Gemara and being either the edition produced in Palestine a.d. c400 or the larger, more important one produced in Babylonia a.d. c500.
Non-Jewish people often confuse the Talmud and the Torah, both important to Jewish history. They sound vaguely similar and may seem as if they stem from the same concept, when, in fact, these are two very different things.
The Talmud is the most vital manuscript of the conventional Judaism religion. It is literally the Hebrew word for “learning,” and is sometimes referred to as the six orders of the Mishnah. The Talmud contains the history of the Jewish religion, as well as their laws and beliefs. It is the basic tool for learning the ethics behind the customs of their religion. The Torah, most widely known as the five books of Moses, is basically the Hebrew Bible – it contains the 613 commandments, and is the whole context of Jewish laws and traditions.
The Talmudic passages in THE RUINED HOUSE help Andrew deepen his connection to the past and call into question everything he believes about his comfortable life.
The story grapples with the very nature of Jewish-American identity and searches for meaning in contemporary culture.
Namdar’s literary work seems a timely contribution for readers to become familiar with Jewish thought both past and present, in view of President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the plan to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv.
The Philadelphia Jewish Voice calls the novel “a highly imaginative and illuminating portrayal of the struggle between the spiritual and corporeal domains of mankind. It tells the story of two houses: the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, host to the soul of a people, and Andrew P. Cohen, host to the soul of a man. Both houses flourished until outside forces and inner flaws laid siege to their protective walls leaving them lying in ruins.
“The main character, Andrew P. Cohen, professor of comparative culture at New York University, is the archetypical academic. Scholarly and urbane, he was on an ascendant trajectory to the pinnacle of academia’s ivory tower when suddenly he fell from grace — a fallen angel. The ramparts of his secular New York Jewish fortress were breached, and his academic temple vanquished. Defeated and deflated, his paradise lost, only the fading shadow of his once successful career remained, along with the tormenting question: will he be able to return to his heretofore idyllic life?
“Namdar has lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for many years. He wrote the book in Hebrew, spending about a decade on the project. Now that it has been translated into English, his American-born wife is finally able to read her husband’s work.
“Namdar’s artistic prose is imprinted on every page as he explores age-old recurring themes: sin, expiation, ruin, and renewal. “The Ruined House” should not be read casually because the story presents thought-provoking perspectives of time-honored traditions and their place in today’s world.”
About Ruby Namdar
Ruby Namdar was born and raised in Jerusalem to a family of Iranian-Jewish heritage. His first book, Haviv (2000), won the Israeli Ministry of Culture’s Award for Best First Publication. The Ruined House won the 2014 Sapir Prize–Israel’s most important literary award. He currently lives in New York City with his wife and two daughters and teaches Jewish literature, focusing on biblical and Talmudic narrative.
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This post was written by Doris Booth